I took the assignment seriously. I read a number of books on the topic. I even typed and printed my paper, which was a big deal, because there were very few computers available for students.
However, I was fortunate to have a father with a computer that looked like a huge carton. So to type my assignment, I had to go home. I then printed the work and even paid to have it bound.
One of my classmates looked at all my effort and laughed. She said to me: what’s the point of putting all this effort into the assignment? I’m just going to copy someone else’s work, and I will still get an A.
You can imagine how bad I felt. The next time I was home, I lamented to my family: What’s the point of doing honest work, if you are going to score the same as someone who doesn’t put in the work?
My younger sister then told me: don’t regret the work you put into the term paper. It doesn’t matter that your friend scored the same grade as you. Eventually, you will be better off for doing your own work.
That was advice from someone your age. To her older sister, who was me.
After I completed my degree, I was posted to Matuga Girls in Kwale district, where I was earned 3,000 shillings a month and shared a house with two of my colleagues. As for my friend, she chose not to teach and she got a corporate job. A year later, she invited us to a harambee to raise money for her to take a Masters in the US.
About six years later, I did go to study in the US, coincidentally at the same university my friend was admitted to. But I didn’t need to call a harambee, because I got funding for my education based on the experience I had gained in Kenya. I eventually completed my studies. She did not.
As for my sister’s words, they did come true. I still remember that term paper. It was through that paper that I learned about the Phelps-Stokes commission of 1924. And just in case you don’t know why that matters, let me tell you.
After slavery ended in the US in 1865, the country’s black population faced a huge problem. Because they had been slaves, they were uneducated and had no property or skills. Yet they were expected to now compete in employment or in entrepreneurship with the rest of America. So the major question facing the leaders was this: how do we educate our people to be self-reliant?
One major idea came from a man called Booker T. Washington. He said: why don’t we just train black people in technical skills from which they can earn a living? We don’t need to be equal to whites; we just need to work and take care of ourselves.
Booker T. was simply being practical and offering a short term solution. But that’s not what whites understood. What they heard to say was that racial equality was impossible, and that the only education black people deserved was technical skills; not skills in the humanities or the arts.
Why does this matter? Well, in the 1920s, the British were trying to entrench colonialism in Kenya and needed Africans with skills that could build the colonial economy. So inevitably, they had to answer the same question: what kind of education should Africans receive? And because they were not sure, they were offered help from the US, by guess who? A man called Thomas Jesse Jones.
Jones was the CEO of a donor foundation called Phelp-Stokes Fund. The fund had supported Booker T.’s ideas about education in the US, so in 1924, Jones shared Booker T.’s education model with the British colonial government. The Phelps-Stokes Commission proposed that Africans should be taught technical subjects, especially carpentry, metalwork and hygiene. Although Africans were to be taught to integrate their knowledge with African culture, they were not to be taught African history or African art, because according to the colonialists, Africans had no history or art worth studying. And settlers, like the Delamere family, also did not want Africans to receive education in the arts and humanities, because, they said, the arts would corrupt our minds and make us start asking for unnecessary things like freedom.
And how has all this knowledge helped? For me, it explains a lot about the struggle for arts education. Because of that paper I wrote as a twenty-something year old, and the advice of another twenty-something year old, I now understand why we must struggle for the arts and humanities started in our curriculum. Denying arts education is denying students the capacity to be creative and to think critically. And without these two skills, it is easier to control you, because you lack the skill to express what you think, and you lack the capacity to imagine a different life. Or to imagine a different Kenya. And then the politicians reinforce that lack of imagination by telling you that history is useless, because knowing about Vasco da Gama doesn’t build bridges or roads.
All this that I understand now, started with a term paper I did as an undergraduate student. My younger sister, who was the same age you are now, gave me excellent advice that I never forgot. And because of this understanding, I am invited to churches and to talk to artists about arts education. Just last week, I was talking about education to artists at a forum hosted by Buni TV, creators of the XYZ show.
And I remember my sister’s advice almost every day that I’m marking students’ work. Two semesters ago, I gave an ENG 111 class an assignment to write a book report. I explained very well that they were not to tell me what the book was about, but to tell me the strategies they were using to read the book. But instead, most of the students gave me reviews of the book that they found on the internet. Why?
Because, as Pastor Curtis once said, we cheat, and we copy-paste, because we think our story is not enough. The students thought that their story was not enough. Of course, that’s probably not what students saying to themselves. They were probably thinking – well, I’m here to do the degree my parents chose for me. Others may have simply thought: I have better things to do than to spend my time on assignments. Others may simply have forgotten the assignment until the night before. Yet others may have been doing what they’ve always done: repeating to the teacher what they think the teacher wants to hear.
Whatever the reason for copy-pasting, the result is all the same: when you go to the internet and pick someone else’s idea, and don’t even bother to give credit for it, you’re essentially saying that you don’t have a voice. That you have nothing to say. That you have no contribution to make. As Curtis said, you think your story is not enough.
There was a woman in the Bible who suffered from the same problem. In John 4, we read of a woman whom Jesus asked for a drink of water. Jesus was thirsty, and just wanted some water. But just like for my students, such a simple request proved to be a difficult task for the woman. She started with an apology, saying that as a Samaritan, she was unworthy of giving Jesus a drink. Jesus tried to assure her that that was a separate issue, but that if she wanted life-giving water, he was the real deal. But the woman still felt inadequate. When Jesus asked her to come with her husband, she said she had none. Then Jesus told her, “I know your story. I know you have been married five times, and now you’re come-we-staying. But it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, because you can worship God in spirit and truth. Come as you are. Your story is enough.”
And that conversation was so powerful, that the Samaritan woman was bold enough to approach her people and tell them that she had met the Messiah. And because of her, many other Samaritans believed in Jesus.
Because Jesus acknowledged the Samaritan woman’s story, she became empowered enough to speak to others.
And that is what Jesus is asking you to do here in school. He’s not asking you to be acceptable, to get approval through getting an A grade by using someone else’s words. He’s asking you to be yourself. He’s saying he knows your story, and that he can give you living water so that you don’t feel that you have to hide behind someone else’s words.
I am here to assure you of the living water that comes from Jesus. This living water will give you the confidence to tell your own story, no matter how silly it sounds to the world, and no matter whether you get an A or not. I’ve told you about one A that I scored as an undergraduate. I did not tell you about the Ds I also scored. My D’s. But it is not because of my grades that I am standing in front of you today. I standing in front of you because Jesus has confirmed that indeed, my story is enough. All I require in life, He has given me. I know who I am, as we’ve just sang.
And that’s what David said when faced with Goliath. When he went with his stones and his sling, the king’s soldiers told him to copy paste a different weapon. But he found the copy-pasted weapon too heavy to carry. Then when he went to the battle field, and this time, it was Goliath who laughed at David’s weapons. But David was unmoved. He said that his stones and his sling were enough. Because he came in the name of the Lord.
So I stand in front of you today, asking you not to cheat in your exams. Asking you not to copy paste in your term papers. Asking you to learn the skill of reading for yourself, of citing others, because actually, citing others makes you sound more intelligent. It makes people connect with you because you know someone they know, or you’ve introduced them to someone they didn’t know before. Remember even Jesus cited the scriptures when he talked about himself.
Do not hide your story by pretending someone else’s words are yours. You are a chosen generation, called to show God’s excellence. All you require in life, God has given you. Know who you are. Speak in confidence. Do your own assignments. I’m not promising that you’ll get A grades in every class. But this I know: if you own your own story, you will be more confident in yourself and in the God who created you.
And this isn’t just about education and grades. It’s also about relationships. I know, because I am also the proud wife of a man who believed his story was enough to publish it in a book. My husband soaked his early years in alcohol. But when he recovered, he knew that he could not stay sober unless he owned his story. And that’s how I fell in love with him – by reading his story.
So today, I urge you to tell Jesus how you feel about your story. If you’re ashamed of what you’ve done, or ashamed of where you come from, tell Jesus about it. And Jesus will tell you that he has given you all that you need. You do not need to steal someone else’s words, or ideas or values, or pretend to be someone you’re not. You do not need someone else’s weapons to fight in your own wars. Because your story is enough.
This is the text of a sermon I preached to students of Daystar University Athi River campus, on November 15, 2016. The views presented here are my personal ones, and do not, in any way, reflect the position of the university.